June 8, 2016

Innovative University Courses Explore New Worlds in New Ways

Taking notes at lectures, participating in preceptorial discussions, writing papers and exams — several Princeton University courses recently awarded grants for innovation will be branching out far beyond these traditional activities in coming semesters.

“The Environmental Nexus is about the intersection of the climate, food, water, and biodiversity,” said Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Stephen Pacala, discussing a new course he is creating. “The real problem the current generation faces is that it’s not enough just to solve one of those problems.”

Emphasizing the multi-faceted, interdisciplinary nature of the course, Mr. Pacala added, “It’s got ethicists involved and social scientists and economists, because there are so many different dimensions to the problem. I want to get the largest possible cross-campus conversation going.”

Also pursuing a multi-disciplinary curriculum, assistant African-American Studies Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson’s students will draw on resources of the Princeton University Art Museum to examine “the significance of slavery as a recurrent theme in the art of the Black Diaspora,” through the study of art objects, institutions, and monuments.

The course work will include field trips, visiting artists and scholars, and, for the students’ final project, the creation of an online exhibition that explores the representation of slavery in contemporary America through artworks held at Princeton.

Mixing history, classics and theater in his new course, “Reading Constantinople: A Journey to the Capital of Byzantium,” Professor Emmanuel Bourbouhakis will assign his students to take on the identities of medieval personae in researching the legacy created by the City of Constantine, capital of the Byzantine Empire at the crossroads of West and East. The course, according to the assistant classics professor, “will combine theatrical reading of Byzantine literature with study of the monuments by which Constantinople forged its usable past to become a ‘New Rome,’ ruling the emergent Christian East as the coveted metropolis of the Middle Ages.”

Meanwhile, history professor Jeremy Adelman will be extending his online world history course, “The Global History Lab,” already enrolling thousands of students from around the world, to include students in refugee camps in Kenya (mostly Sudan, South Sudan, and Somali refugees), in Jordan (mostly Syrian refugees) and other refugees in the city of Amman.

The overseas students will participate online alongside Princeton University students in historical research teams. Mr. Adelman’s graduate students will be working in the refugee camps and in Amman to train tutors and provide necessary support structure for the student refugees.

Focusing closer to home, history professor Alison Isenberg and Purcell Carson, Woodrow Wilson School documentary film specialist, will be collaborating in adding new dimensions to Ms. Carson’s “Documentary Film and the City” course. Their students will explore the 1960s unrest in Trenton, including the events surrounding the death of a black college student who was shot by a young white police officer. Students will integrate history and documentary cinema in producing their own research papers and video sketches.

“This project is both historical and timely, since it helps expand our understanding of powerful issues like ‘police brutality’ and ‘looting’ as depicted in the press today and through the past,” Ms. Isenberg explained. “The course encourages students to consider how the voice of the historian can help move this public conversation forward. Toward that end, we are harnessing the tools of documentary cinema to assemble archives and community voices to create a work of public memory and to grapple with the human dimensions of what was lost during one fateful night of tragic unrest in Trenton in April 1968.”

Twenty-two faculty proposals to develop new classes or redesign existing courses received funding this year through Princeton University’s 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education. The awards criteria emphasized exploration of new pedagogical methods to enhance student learning, foster interdisciplinary connections, and redefine teaching and assessment practices.

“Transformative teaching and learning is one of the single most important things we do as a campus,” said Dean of the College Jill Dolan. “Many of this year’s proposals demonstrated broad attention to important social issues and a commitment to using cutting-edge, creative classroom practices to address them through interdisciplinary knowledge. I’m delighted by all of this innovative work and look forward to seeing how these projects will spark more pedagogical creativity in the future.”